It's often said that an effective message is lost if the speaker looks away from his or her audience. Another common belief is that liars tend to avoid eye contact. But this isn't always true.
Strong, demanding eye contact can both help and hurt you, and just because a person looks you in the eye, it doesn’t mean that he or she’s telling the truth.
Stacia Pierce, a career expert and the CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises, teaches body language and communication skills to leaders and entrepreneurs. She says that a little coaching on nonverbal communication often helps people understand the things they didn’t know they were saying.
“Sometimes when you’re staring at someone it can send the wrong message,” she told Healthline. “A lot of times, people get the wrong impression if you look at them for too long.”
Eye Contact from Birth to Adolescence
As infants, we’re drawn to eyes that gaze back at us. Experts say that may be the foundation for the development of social skills later in life.
But how much eye contact a child makes with his or her mother can also help determine their mental state. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that eye contact between mother and child is one indicator of callous–unemotional traits, such as psychopathic disorders. Children with these disorders are less likely to engage in eye contact with their mothers.
How Your Eyes Expose Your Lies
In one experiment conducted by European researchers, 338 passengers at an international airport were asked to either lie or tell the truth about their upcoming trips. By studying their eye movements, researchers found that liars made more deliberate eye contact than truth tellers.
“Liars take their credibility less for granted than truth tellers,” the study, published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, found. “They therefore may have a greater desire to be convincing and hence be more inclined to monitor the interviewer to determine whether they seem to be being believed.”
But that doesn't mean there's honor among thieves, according to a study published in the journal Psychology, Crime & Law. In an experiment, researchers divided people into 43 pairs. Some were told to go to lunch at a nearby restaurant, while others were tasked to steal money from a purse.
When asked about their afternoons, the thieves lied about their wrongdoing. In doing so, they maintained more eye contact with interviewers than the truth-tellers. However, they avoided eye contact with their accomplices.
‘You’re Not Selling Me’: How Eye Contact Can Reduce Persuasion
A recent study in the journal Psychological Science tested the persuasiveness of a speaker against where their audience was directing its attention. Researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that more eye contact between the speaker and listeners predicted less attitude change about the matter being discussed. Looking at the speaker’s mouth, however, yielded greater attitude change.
“Intentionally maintaining direct eye contact led to less persuasion than did gazing at the mouth,” the study concluded. “These findings suggest that efforts at increasing eye contact may be counterproductive across a variety of persuasion contexts.”
Communication Tips From a Pro
Many of Pierce’s clients find that they’re failing at job interviews because of their body language and communication style. With a little practice and coaching, she says, they often do better.
“If they don’t feel confident, they’ll look down,” she said. “The worst thing you can do is not have direct eye contact because it shows you are unsure.”
While looking away can convey feelings of intimidation or a lack of confidence, being too close and too intense can also have an adverse effect.
“Sometimes, eye contact can be a little rigid if you’re too close,” she said. “You don’t want to be so close that you’re in their space.”
When speaking face-to-face, taking a step back from the person can solve proximity issues. It can also make eye contact more engaging and less off-putting. When speaking to a large group, Pierce recommends scanning over the audience, not focusing on a single person. This allows the speaker to connect with the whole room and not be swayed by a single audience member’s reaction.
“The thing with eye contact is that people want to believe in you and feel that you’re truthful,” she said. “Eye contact can play a big role in that.”